by Matt Savin

These are turbulent but interesting times to be a Birmingham fan. In fact, they have been ever since the team took to the Wembley pitch in the Carling Cup final eleven months ago, and started us on a roller coaster ride that has provided a fair few thrills, and far too many bouts of nausea.

Fans had got the message that the Cup win was a false dawn after witnessing a tedious Alex McLeish team get relegated. But still, the Blues managed to hit new and impressive lows in quick succession: we argued with Villa fans about who wants Big Eck the least; we saw money worries denied or obscured by a disingenuous board; we lamented the replacement of Premiership players with a smaller number of Championship footballers, journeymen and relative unknowns; and then came to view those as better times after our owner was charged with money laundering and had his assets frozen, since which point the only debate has been about how little money we really have.

But on to the highs, and yes there have been some: sat in ridiculous contrast to the drab prospect of aiming for Championship survival at the season’s start have come unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime memories of European jaunts in the Europa League; and now the team has confounded initial low expectations, and has recently made a steady climb into the Championship play-off places.

But the real high this season has been the inspired managerial appointment of Chris Hughton, who has sat uncomplainingly in the eye of a storm not of his making, and created order, stability and even excellence from the midst of chaos.

Yes, there have been odd starting line-ups on occasion; qualification to the next stage of the Europa League would probably have been achieved if we’d played our best XI, and the excellent loanee Chris Wood may have stayed for the rest of the season if he’d started more games. However, Blues have played more games than any other English team this season, and Hughton has shuffled his pack well to compete on several fronts. And beyond these quibbles, no real faults can be found in Hughton’s tenure.

While some key players stand out, the overriding sense after most games is that a team performance garnered the result.

While credit should also go to McLeish for purchasing some key players, it is Hughton who has got them performing, and, it should be said, performing way beyond their ability on paper. His role in this respect can surely be seen in the team’s continuous improvement over the course of the season. Boaz Myhill and Curtis Davies at the back have gone from error-prone to highly reliable. Guirane N’Daw has progressively become a revelation in a midfield shorn of presence following the departure of Craig Gardner and Barry Ferguson. The teenage Jordan Mutch, thrown into the midfield mix out of necessity, has also started to deliver. And most notably, after spending several years as a reluctantly-used stand-in for Liam Ridgewell, David Murphy is now excelling as a marauding left-back – to such an extent that many fans are unconcerned about Ridgewell’s departure.

But while some key players stand out, the overriding sense after most games is that a team performance garnered the result. Yes, Chris Burke is a superb, impactive winger, the 17-year-old Nathan Redmond makes delightful cameos and is developing an eye for goal, and ignoring private misdemeanours, Marlon King both scores goals and connects the play well. But these are crowning flourishes to the solid base of collective effort, with goals spread liberally around the team.

And as a fan, perhaps the most refreshing development is that after years of emptily complaining to football pitches and television sets about one-dimensional tactics, this team ethic allows the average Bluenose to be a patient onlooker; there is a clear structure and method to the Blues’ play, and even when not performing well, they look like they have a blueprint to which they can refer which helps them to create chances and retain a stake in any game. 16 goals in the last 5 games attests to this, while the concession of only one goal in response indicates that Hughton does not forsake defence to do so.

After the draw-at-all-costs approach of McLeish this is a refreshing return to why we watch the game in the first place.

The chances of Hughton being the Championship’s manager of the month for January are therefore high. And while those who witnessed us against Wolves in the FA Cup may demur, we’re playing a controlled yet cavalier style of football that has Blues fans excited once more. After the draw-at-all-costs approach of McLeish this is a refreshing return to why we watch the game in the first place; as West Ham and Villa fans under their current managers might agree, sometimes the journey is more important than what’s at the end of the road.

The worry though for Birmingham fans is that our current position of sixth place proves to be the dizzy high on the blue and white roller coaster, and that an inevitable low is just over the horizon; at the time of writing, the jeopardy of the transfer window had reared its head with the incongruous sale of the apparently settled winger Jean Beausejour to a relegation-haunted Wigan team. Rumours are that the sale was made in order to cover operating costs for the remainder of the season. That the board may have been forced to undermine a lucrative promotion push creates concern that any damage not done in January is simply being stored up for May. And how realistic are Chris Hughton’s chances of pulling rabbits out of the hat in the interim, when reports suggest that we’re reduced to offering trials to non-league players? And what likelihood that the unknown quantity that is our board will sell a prospect such as Nathan Redmond long before it is beneficial to any party concerned to do so given his young years?

But the biggest concern of all? That with our recent rise up the table, the quiet man, the uncomplaining chairman’s dream, the guy conjuring order from chaos with a limited budget, is starting to get noticed himself. The pain of losing the fans’ favourite would prove to be a new nadir, even for a football club capable of plumbing considerable depths.